Westmoreland, Butler, Washington flagged for accepting gifts from voting machine vendors
Elections officials in Western Pennsylvania say they’re rethinking accepting even small gifts like coffee and doughnuts from potential vendors after state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale flagged counties around the state for behavior that “smacks of impropriety.”
Westmoreland, Butler and Washington counties were among those cited for accepting gifts from voting machine vendors since 2016.
Flights to Las Vegas, tickets to wine festivals, admission to an amusement park, dinners at high-end restaurants and open bars at conferences were among gifts that companies provided to public officials in 18 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, DePasquale said in a report released Friday.
“As Pennsylvania counties choose new voting equipment, I want them to make decisions based on the best interest of voters — and no other factors,” DePasquale said.
Local officials said the freebies they accepted did not exceed the $250 threshold for reporting gifts under the state Ethics Act.
Westmoreland County’s elections bureau director and deputy director were treated to a dinner by Omaha, Neb.-based vendor Election Systems & Software, or ES&S, last year, and the director and her husband accepted an invitation by ES&S to attend a wine festival in September, the report said. Dominion and ES&S sent catered lunches to the elections bureau and provided boxes of doughnuts to the bureau and commissioners’ suite.
Westmoreland Elections Director Beth Lechman responded to a request for comment via a statement from the county asserting its transparency. The county said it “erred on the side of caution” by disclosing gifts to DePasquale that “were largely de minimis,” or too trivial to merit consideration
“Moreover, no decision has yet to be made concerning the purchase of new voting machines,” the county statement said. “Ultimately, the decision to purchase the new voting machines will not rest with the director of elections, but will be made by the county Board of Elections.”
In Butler County, Canadian-based vendor Dominion Voting provided a meal at an equipment demonstration in 2016 and a fast-food lunch in May, the report found. ES&S provided coffee and doughnuts to staff and lunch for eight county officials last month. Various election equipment vendors dropped off candy and other small items.
“All that’s true. We weren’t holding anything back (from the auditor general),” county Elections Director Shari Brewer said by phone Friday. “The only reason we never reported it on our ethics forms is because nothing amounted to over $250.”
As for whether such gifts impact decision-making, “Absolutely not,” Brewer said. “We’re basing it on the equipment itself, the affordability, the usability … we’re looking at all of that.”
Brewer said officials are considering refusing all gifts, even small ones like packages of chocolate-covered pretzels, “just to eliminate any issues.”
Elections officials in Washington County received free lunches and were reimbursed for mileage during voting equipment demonstrations by Dominion and ES&S in summer 2016, and received lunch from ES&S last summer.
DePasquale’s oversight report is “making us rethink what we should and shouldn’t accept,” Washington County Elections Director Melanie Ostrander said Friday by phone.
“Even a small token such as a coffee and doughnuts, we’ll second-guess those in the future,” Ostrander said. “But even the gifts that we did receive, such as the lunches, it’s not going to impact my decision or our county’s decision on which voting machine vendor we’re going with.”
DePasquale’s office began the statewide review in December after learning that Luzerne County’s newly contracted vendor, ES&S, gave the elections director nearly $2,500 worth of free travel, including to Las Vegas, to attend advisory board meetings in March and August 2017.
In a statement Friday, ES&S denied ever acting unethically. It said its success has been “firmly grounded on the outstanding performance of equipment during thousands of elections over the last 40 years.”
Among other freebies flagged by DePasquale: more than $3,500 in travel and lodging for officials and a county commissioner in Berks County; vendor-sponsored cocktail parties in Delaware County; and a day at Hershey Park for Warren County officials that included entrance fees, lunch and creating their own candy bar.
DePasquale called for updating disclosure laws and strengthening state ethics rules to encompass more public officials.
He said it doesn’t matter if the gifts were large or small. He took issue with the fact that people accepted them.
“Even if this activity was permitted under the law, county officials who are making decisions about spending taxpayer dollars should not accept anything of value from the companies that are asking for their business,” DePasquale said.
Counties statewide have until the end of the year to choose new voting systems that include a paper backup record to allow for more accurate post-election audits. The new machines must be in place by the 2020 primary.
Costs are expected to range from $125 million to $150 million. Gov. Tom Wolf asked for cover of up to half that amount and asked for $14 million from the federal government.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .